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Sayonara Air India : Confessions of A Frequent Flyer - Sandip Sen

August 28, 2017 | Business Standard

Many years ago I was at a friend’s place for dinner. His wife who was working for Indian Airlines (this was before the merger) proudly took me to the kitchen where she showed me hundreds of cubes of jam and butter along with sachets of ketchup. She proudly told that she had one year’s stock of these. I remember saying to myself that an airline with a culture like this cannot last long.

The fact that is has survived, when many airlines in India and across the world have perished is purely because of government largesse. Air India’s net debt stands at a staggering 55,000 crores with losses of over 50000 crores . The market share for Air India has shrunk to 14%. In April 2017, its domestic market share was a paltry 12.9 percent with the lowest passenger load factor.

Let’s face it, politicians, bureaucrats and employees have treated Air India like a milch cow . Air India is perhaps the only airline in the world which still offers free tickets to son in laws. My cousin who is forty is based in London and doing very well in the corporate sector. He often swings by to New York on long weekends to meet friends, thanks to the above policy.

I recall another close friend, a senior and upstanding bureaucrat telling me bitterly how he managed to deplane four paying first class passengers on an Air India Delhi London Flight to accommodate a minister and his family in the busy Christmas season.

A couple of years back I used to regularly fly the Air India Newark Mumbai sector as it was a direct flight ,landed at Mumbai at a decent hour and was also the most economical. Once flying on this sector I found the air hostesses and the purser extremely solicitous .They were coming ever so often and asking me if I needed food or drinks; offered to make my bed and so on .I was sure that Air India had confused me for a politician or senior bureaucrat When I mentioned this to the purser he said and I quote “ we know that you are Mr. Sen , you are the only paying passenger in Business class”.

Nowadys I fly often to Riyadh for Board meetings for a Joint Venture and return by Air India. The aircraft has twenty four Business class seats and at best one or two are occupied. I asked the purser the reason for this and he frankly mentioned that apart from government officials who he called “free upgraders” nobody flies Air India business class. On asking him as to why Air India is flying this airline configuration on this sector he didn’t have a reply.

A look at media reports over the last twelve months shows that Air India had the dubious distinction of being number one in the world as far as major delays was concerned. No wonder on social media sites Air India gets very poor reviews. Apart from the handful of reviewers who are pleasantly surprised by Air India’s performance (because their expectations were very low), the vast majority swear never to travel in the Airline again. Quotes from a travel blog in the last thirty days have customers writing (and I reproduce verbatim)-“The worst airline experience I ever had”, “Never Fly Air India again”,”Air India should just go into trash “.

The current chairman of Air India Ashwani Lohani , comes with a good reputation for administration and seems to have been giving a free hand by the government but even he has been unable to stem the tide. The decision to merge Indian Airline and Air India without a clear rationale ,the thoughtless decision to lease close to hundred airplanes and put the airlines into a debt trap and the giving away of prime airport slots for pecuniary gains have brought the Airlines to its knees. Over the years a culture of mediocrity, inefficiency ,nepotism and corruption have militated against any turnaround. As the saying goes “Culture eats strategy for Breakfast” and Lohani has struggled to change the culture.

The amount that the government will save by privatizing Air India or making a strategic disinvestment can give a boost to its pet programmes such as Skill India or Start up India or badly needed spends in Education and Health. To pour more funds into a bottomless pit just so that a narrow group of elected officials and bureaucrats can treat it like their own is against the feudal VIP culture the government seems to be against , as well as the ethos of Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas. However time is running out and the government needs to move quickly before the value of the airline plummets so much that there are no takers left.

Sandip Sen is the CEO of a major BPO company and can be reached at [email protected]. Views expressed are his own.

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